26 November 2012

Accepting Limitations and Pushing the Limits

A few weeks ago, I posted a declaration that, this November, I planned to "Do it All!" Immediately, several friends and family members pointed out that my lofty goals might be a little bit insane, and cautioned me not to overdo it, not to try to push myself beyond my limits. In almost the same breath, these friends and family members offered encouragement and applause as they cheered me forward in my insane race to accomplish all of my November goals.

This mix of encouragement and caution reminds me of one of my favorite scriptures: "And see that all these things are done in wisdom and aorder; for it is not requisite that a man should run bfaster‍ than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize;" (Mosiah 4:27). The Lord doesn't expect us to kill ourselves with trying to do everything, but He does want us to push ourselves to be the best we can. Keep going, even when the going gets tough. Become better and stronger than we thought we could.

I'm so grateful for these people who have cheered me on and reminded me to take breaks as needed this month!! I know I wouldn't be able to do it without you! (I thought about providing a list of names, but I'm sure I'd forget someone.)

The month isn't over yet. I still have another week to accomplish my goals, but I wanted to check in and give you an update so far. This month, my goals were:

1. NaNoWriMo: I LOVE the story I'm working on! The characters have come to life for me, and I've literally laughed out loud at some of the scenes while writing them. I'm not sure if this is a sign of really good writing or just raging egomania, but it's made my November writing time extremely fun! My word count right now is 34,620 - I'm a little behind the goal so far, but I can still catch up... And even if I don't, I'm 1/3 of the way through the plot outline for the full manuscript (can you believe it? I actually wrote an outline!!), so I think I'm still coming out ahead on this challenge.

2. PiBoIdMo: I'm "finished!" I now have 30 picture book ideas (& 1 shiny new YA novel idea, as a bonus!!), just waiting to be turned into actual books. I've even written a first draft for one idea. Some of these PiBoIdMo ideas may never again see the light of day... some might evolve into longer stories instead... and I may come up with a few more gems in the next few days, but the point is that I've been exercising my creativity muscles, and I think a few of these ideas will be really fun picture books to write!
3. Finish revising at least one of my two middle grade novels: Honestly, I haven't worked on this goal at all. I use a different part of my brain when revising than I do when writing first drafts (NaNoWriMo) or brainstorming new ideas (PiBoIdMo)... So I'll probably push this goal into December or January. But who knows? Tomorrow, I might wake up with some amazing ideas for one of my middle grade projects that won't wait... so I'm going to leave this goal on the list, just in case.

4. Keep moving forward with querying my finished projects: I've sent a few query letters, and I entered a pitch for both my YA contemporary novel (Kissing Frogs) and my picture book (The Princess and the Frogs) into the Agent for the Holidays contest on YALitChat. I might try for one of the slots in the Pitch Wars contest tomorrow too...

5. Check in weekly with updates on the status of my goals: Well, I haven't exactly updated weekly, but I did provide a couple of updates on my original "Doing it All" blog post.

6. Maintain at least a small shred of sanity: I couldn't have done it without my amazing cheerleaders (I hope you all know who you are!!), but I think I'm at least as sane now as I was when I started the month...

7. Participate in the Spectral read-along: I finished this one fairly easily. As you know, Spectral is one of my favorite books of 2012, so this goal was just to give me something fun. :)

8. Weekly Crock Pot Gourmet blog posts: I've posted 3 installments so far (with a total of 4 recipes), and response has been good. Since my family has really enjoyed being taste testers for the recipes I come up with, I think I'll continue these weekly posts for the foreseeable future.

I've accomplished a lot this month, and I plan to accomplish even more. But I realized this week, when I couldn't drag myself out of bed on Thanksgiving morning (dinner was a little late, and it may not have made it to the table at all, if my hubby and kids hadn't taken over the preparation when I had to go lie down again halfway through), that maybe I was pushing myself to run faster than I had strength. So I think I'll be working at a more manageable pace for the remaining days of this month. And if I don't finish my to-do list, I can always roll some tasks over to next month. The important thing is, I won't be giving up. I'll keep going, and I'll do my best to "finish," but if I don't, I'll still celebrate the accomplishments I've managed this month!

22 November 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving all! Today, I'm thankful for so many things, but first and foremost, I'm extremely grateful for my family....

For my husband, Phil, who is so amazingly talented (don't you love the cute Thanksgiving picture he drew for me this morning, while I slept in late?) and super supportive.

For my son, Ben, who makes me laugh with his quick wit and sharp sense of humor. He has a talent for finding and highlighting the very best qualities in everyone he knows, and I'm so glad to have him in my life.

For my daughter, Emily, who is so very talented with her music. She has a beautiful voice, but she also plays the piano, and the flute, and now she's learning the trumpet too. I love the way she fills our home with beautiful music on a daily basis.

For my daughter, Becky, who can find a reason to smile in everything. She is so bubbly and sparkly and happy that it's nearly impossible to frown when she's around.

For my daughter, Katie, who is very entertaining. She keeps us all laughing and giggling every day with the crazy dances she choreographs to the popular songs on the radio.

I'm so blessed to have such a wonderful family, and I'm glad that we have this day to spend together, remembering all that we have been given in the past year.

What are you most thankful for this year?

21 November 2012

Green Bean Casserole: Crock Pot Gourmet for the Frantic Chef

This year, my family decided not to have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with the turkey and stuffing. Instead, we plan to have an International Feast with our favorite foods representing the places that we've visited, close friends who have shared their culture and traditions with us, and our own family heritage. However, one of my favorite Thanksgiving dishes has always been the super-simple, yet oh so tasty, green bean casserole. I haven't been able to enjoy this favorite dish in recent years, because one of the main ingredients is french fried onions, and about 6 or 7 years ago, most brands that make these crispy onions started using palm kernel oil (which I'm allergic to) in their recipes. (I altered and tweaked the original recipe to achieve the same flavor and similar texture without the store bought fried onions, but my altered version, while tasty, is in no way simple. Maybe I'll share it sometime, if I branch out to share time consuming recipes for chefs that have all the time in the world...)

When I found this brand of fried onions at Costco, and they didn't have palm kernel oil, I decided that we had to include green bean casserole in our International Thanksgiving Feast. (It represents my kids' heritage as their mother's favorite childhood Thanksgiving memory!)

For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

The ingredients are simple:
1 can cream of mushroom soup, 2 lbs. frozen cut green beans, and 2 c. french fried onions (divided)

Pour the frozen green beans into your crock pot. (I used my 3-quart crock pot for this recipe. You could always double the recipe for a larger crock pot.)

Add the can of cream of mushroom soup, and stir. (Many recipes for green bean casserole call for added milk as well. This is totally unnecessary when cooking the casserole in a crock pot, since the moisture tends to stay in the food with crock pot cooking, instead of evaporating as it does in the oven. The moisture already in the green beans is plenty. However, if you prefer a thinner sauce to your green bean casserole, you may add 1/4c. or so of milk.)

Stir in 1 c. of the fried onions. Mix well.

Top with remaining 1 c. of fried onions. Cook on low heat for approximately 4 hours (although it doesn't hurt if you forget about the casserole and leave it cooking longer).

Serve with your favorite turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, etc.!

Green bean casserole isn't the only thing you can cook in your crock pot to save valuable oven space this Thanksgiving!

I usually cook my stuffing in the crock pot as well. -- Mix up your favorite stuffing, but instead of shoving it inside the bird (which can be hazardous if not done properly, as stuffing and poultry usually don't reach optimum temperatures at the same time, and no one really wants a case of food poisoning for Thanksgiving dinner), or cooking it in the oven (which often leads to a dry stuffing), simply grease your favorite crock pot, fill it 2/3- to 3/4- full of stuffing, and cook on low for about 6 hours or on high for 4-5 hours - until your food thermometer reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

And candied yams are an easy one to cook in a crock pot too, as long as you don't mind that the marshmallows on top don't turn brown, as they do in the oven.

If your crock pot is big enough, or your turkey is small enough, you can cook that in a crock pot too (I "roast" chickens in my crock pot all the time!), but you won't get that perfect-looking, golden-brown turkey that traditionally graces the Thanksgiving table, as it will be so moist that it simply falls off the bones.... :)

Thankful for My Amazing Husband! (More Disney / Star Wars mash ups!)

Okay, I was planning to save this post for Thursday, because I already have another post coming later this afternoon, and I'm trying not to overwhelm you with my inability to be quiet, but a twitter conversation this morning (following another twitter conversation I had over the weekend) emphasized once again how incredibly blessed I am to have my super-amazing and ultra-supportive husband.

I mean, seriously guys, a man who will spend two full weeks drawing pictures for me, just because I said I wanted to see some really funny Disney/Lucasfilms mash ups? A man who cheerfully washes the dishes and the laundry AND cleans the cat's litter box, because he knows I don't like touching dirty things? A man who just last night offered to smash and "kill" the little silk flower I found in my dresser drawer, because in the dim light of the bedroom and with my overtired, overactive imagination, I thought it was a spider? A man who does all these things for me, while totally supporting my writing and reminding me several times a day that this is not just a "hobby," but truly IMPORTANT WORK? Yeah, this man is amazing!!

And sometimes, I feel a little bit guilty about all the bragging I do, because I once caused some serious hard feelings among our small group of friends when all of the other wives started asking their husbands "why don't you ever do things like that for me?" and all of the husbands started asking my sweetie if he could please just tell me to shut up... But really? I'm just not going to stop talking about how amazing this guy is. Because the thing is, he works really hard to show how much he loves me. And I appreciate it. And I don't ever want him to think that I don't notice.

Besides, who wouldn't want to brag about a man who could do this?

Disney / Star Wars Villains

Yeah, Leia is my favorite... No, wait, Obi-wan is my favorite...
No, Philip Bartles is my favorite! ;)

16 November 2012

Crock Pot Gourmet for the Frantic Chef: Apple Pork Loin

This week, for my Crock Pot Gourmet post, I present for your dining pleasure: Pork loin with apples, onions and peppers. (If you missed last week's inaugural post, click here to view it.)

First, gather your ingredients together. I used my 5-quart crock pot for this recipe. I used 4 honeycrisp apples (granny smith are also excellent in this recipe, and often easier to find in your local grocery store's produce department), 2 medium-sized yellow onions, 1 green bell pepper, 3 Tbsp. minced garlic and a 4-pound pork loin. If you have a larger or smaller crock pot, you may need to adjust quantities for your slow cooker. (I would be happy to give you adjusted quantities for your particular Crock Pot, if you need help with the figuring. Just leave a comment on this blog post!)

For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

Wash the apples. Cut them in half, then slice into 1/8-inch wide slices. I think it's easiest to slice the apples first, then cut the core bits off the slices that have part of the core in them, but if you like to remove the core before slicing, you can do it that way too.

Cut the onions in half, remove the peel and discard, then slice into 1/8-inch thick slices, just like you did with the apple (except, obviously, you don't have to worry about removing the core).

Cut the green peppers in half and remove the stem and seeds. Slice into thin strips.

Layer 1/2 of the apples, onions and pepper strips in the bottom of a 5-quart crock pot. (No need to grease the crock pot for this recipe. It shouldn't stick to the sides at all.)

Place the pork loin on top of the apple/onion/pepper mixture and spread 3 Tbsp minced garlic over the top of the meat.

Layer with remaining green peppers, onions and apples, then cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours,

until pork is fully cooked. (It's always best to check the internal temperature of the meat with a meat thermometer, to ensure that your food is, indeed, fully cooked before serving.)

Slice the pork loin and serve with rice, veggies (I like a broccoli/yellow squash mixture) and the apple/onion/pepper mixture that you cooked along with the pork. There will be quite a bit of liquid in with your pork, as the juices of all of the ingredients have mixed together while cooking. I like to ladle a bit of the juice over my meat and rice for flavor.

Questions about this recipe? Comments? Requests for future Crock Pot Gourmet recipes? Please let me know in the comment box below! Thanks!

14 November 2012

Book Review: SKINNY by Donna Cooner

One of my favorite books this year, I think SKINNY by Donna Cooner should be required reading for every teenage girl... and everyone who knows someone who is a teenage girl!

Fifteen-year-old Ever Davies has a secret. Skinny, the dark voice that whispers in her ear, tells her every mean thing that her classmates think about her. Ever knows that, at three hundred pounds, she’ll probably never be loved, and Skinny is determined to make sure she never forgets it. Ever wants to try out for the school musical, but Skinny reminds her that fat girls like her don’t belong on the stage, and so her beautiful singing voice might be forever silenced. Partly in hopes of trying out for the next musical, and partly because she wants to be healthier, Ever decides to undergo risky gastric bypass surgery to help her shed the excess pounds. With the help of her best friend and support of her family, Ever begins to slowly lose the weight, but the surgery isn’t enough. Skinny still sits at her shoulder, whispering reminders that, no matter what she does, Ever will never be good enough to be worthy of love.

Ever’s story is a must-read for every young girl who struggles to accept her own body, and the parents, teachers and friends who love them. Cooner paints a vivid picture of the insecurities that plague almost everyone from time to time, whether those insecurities come from an unhealthy body image or fear of failure or any one of the many other reasons we all find to hate ourselves sometimes.

And as Ever learns to face her own inner demon, readers may find the courage to look for the beauty inside themselves as well.

10 November 2012

A New Breed of Disney Princesses

In celebration of the recent Disney / Lucasfilm merger, my super-talented artist husband drew a couple of pictures for me (he's actually working on a few more, but I was too excited to wait and I begged him to let me post them here now).

I am so grateful for such a talented hubby, who can take my whims and turn them into something better than I'd ever imagined!!
P.S. Hubby just made my day by drawing an adorable picture of the main character in my favorite picture book manuscript! (Check it out!!) I'm so blessed to have him!

*This blog post is brought to you as a part of the Thanksgiving Blog Hop :)

09 November 2012

CrockPot Gourmet for the Frantic Chef: Meatball Stew & Pumpkin Souffle

If you know me at all, you know I'm in love with my Crock Pot. I have six of them in varying sizes (from 2.5 quart to 7 quart), and on occasion, I have been known to use all six of them simultaneously!

Recently, in a twitter conversation with Summer Heacock, Emily McKeon and Jessica Sinsheimer, I started talking about the yummy recipes I've invented for my Crock Pot.... Which led to the suggestion that I should share these yummy recipes... which led to the creation of this blog post (a new regular feature on my blog, for as long as I feel like continuing it)!

I think most everyone knows that you can make stews and soups in a Crock Pot. One of my favorites is a really super-simple stew that I can throw into the pot in five or ten minutes before I leave the house in the morning and have dinner ready and waiting when five o'clock rolls around.

For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

Start by gathering your ingredients. I used a 7-quart Crock Pot for this, in order to make enough to feed my family of 6 (all 4 kids are in the middle of a growth spurt right now - I used to get two full meals and maybe a lunch for me out of this amount, but now it's just enough for one dinner.) If you have a smaller family, or your teenagers aren't eating you out of house and home, this is a very easy "recipe" to cut down to fit whatever size Crock Pot you have! Your dish should be about 2/3 to 3/4 full when you're finished, for optimum cooking efficiency.

First, I dump about 1 1/2 pounds of carrots and a 1-pound bag of frozen (fully-cooked) meatballs into the bottom of the pot. (Any variety of meatballs works for this. I usually use turkey meatballs, because those are my favorite.)

Then, I add about a pound of frozen french fries (the thicker-cut the better)... and yes, you can cut up real potatoes to use instead, but I often use french fries, because it's less chopping and cutting (which means less total prep time) for me.

 Speaking of cutting and chopping, that brings me to my next step: cut into large chunks (1 to 1 1/2 inches): 1 onion, 2 bunches celery and 1 green bell pepper. Or, you can use 2 onions, 2 peppers and only 1 bunch of celery... or no onions, 3 peppers, 1 1/2 bunches of celery... You get the point, I hope. This recipe is totally flexible. You can adjust it to fit your personal tastes! - And if you don't want to chop anything, it's super-easy to find pre-chopped veggies in your produce or freezer section!!

(It goes without saying, but maybe I should point out that the carrots and potatoes can also be substituted or omitted. Feel free to use sweet potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips or any other veggies you like in your stew! I usually use whatever veggies are on sale in any given week.)

Your Crock Pot should be about 2/3 to 3/4 full.

Add 6-8 bouillon cubes and sprinkle in 3 Tbsp corn starch.

Add 8 cups of cold water (if you pour hot water over the corn starch, it might gelatinize and give you lumpy stew) and stir everything together.

Cook on the "Low" setting for 5 hours (or longer - this is one recipe that can simmer all day long without hurting it - the flavors get richer the longer it simmers, and the long, slow cooking time is why you want the veggies cut into rather large chunks, so they don't fall apart).

Serve with rolls or tortillas... or just enjoy it by itself!

* If you're using a 5-quart Crock Pot, you'll probably want to cut all of the ingredient quantities by about 1/3, so you won't overfill your dish and end up with spillover. For a 3-quart Crock Pot, cut the ingredient quantities in half.

But wait! There's more!! Stew is delicious and perfect for this time of year, but it's not exactly Crock Pot Gourmet, is it? For this, my inaugural Crock Pot Gourmet blog post, you get TWO recipes for the price of ONE!!

Here is the recipe that started all of the madness:
Pumpkin German Pancakes!!

German pancakes (or "Puffy Oven Pancakes" as one of my little 4-year-old friends calls them) are more like a souffle than a pancake, and they can be finicky to get just right. A little over a year ago, I had a mad craving for them, but it was the middle of the summer, and I didn't want to heat up my house by turning on the oven, so I played around a bit to see if I could adapt the recipe to my favorite cooking appliance... And it worked so well that when pumpkin season (aka "fall") rolled around, I thought I'd try it with a pumpkin-pie twist!

For a printable version of this recipe, click here.
You'll need: 6 eggs, 1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. salt, 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice, 1/8 tsp. each: cloves, allspice & cardamom (or omit these spices & just use 1 full tsp. pumpkin pie spice), 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract, 1 (29oz) can pumpkin (make sure it's pumpkin puree, not pumpkin pie mix!), 1/2 c. sugar, 1/4 c. oil, 1 c. powdered milk, 4 c. water and 4 c. flour (I like the fuller flavor of whole wheat flour, but you can use all-purpose if you prefer) - Update!! You can make a gluten-free version of this recipe by grinding 2 1/2 c. quinoa into flour (see a quick how-to on this here) and using that plus 1/2 c. cornstarch instead of the 4 c. flour!

In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, spices, vanilla, salt and oil. Beat until frothy.

Add pumpkin, sugar and powdered milk (or you can omit the powdered milk and use milk instead of water in the next step - I use powdered milk for cooking, because it's usually less expensive and you don't notice a taste difference in products that are going to be cooked anyway).

Drizzle in 4 c. water, one cup at a time, while mixing on the slowest speed.

Do the same with the flour. Keeping the mixer on the slowest speed, sprinkle in the flour one cup at a time. Make sure to turn off the mixer as soon as the last of the flour is incorporated into the batter, so that you won't run the risk of over mixing!

Spray your Crock Pot dish with a thin coat of cooking spray. (I use my 5-quart Crock Pot for this recipe, although you can cut the recipe in half, if you'd like to make a smaller batch in a 3-quart Crock Pot instead.)

Pour the batter into the crock, cover and cook on "Low" for about 5 hours, until the pancake is set. (You can test by sticking a knife down into the center. If it comes out clean, your pancake is ready.)

Serve warm. You can eat it plain and simple...

Or you can drizzle with honey or caramel sauce.
(I tried chocolate raspberry this time around, and it wasn't bad).

My favorite is to top it with caramel and whipped cream!

Let me know what you think! I'd love to hear about it, if you try these recipes at home. - And if you have a particular recipe you'd like me to share, or a favorite food that you'd love to see adapted to Crock Pot cooking, please leave me a comment with your requests!

Note: Taking pictures of food (trying to make it LOOK as good as it TASTES) is HARD! If anyone has any tips for me, I'd appreciate it!

08 November 2012

Sticks and Stones

Everyone knows the old adage "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." It's catchy and memorable and it makes an easy reply whenever you need to let the local bully know that (s)he is being mean.

Unfortunately, the old adage is totally false.

Scrapes and bruises heal, but an unkind word can hurt so deeply that the scar it leaves will never go away. And just like untreated scrapes and broken bones can lead to infections and serious health issues, untreated meanness can fester and spread until it poisons your soul.

Today, I am extremely grateful for amazing friends (@NHNovelist,  @BrendaDrake, ‏@KimberleyGLittl, @AngiNicole722, @branwrites to name just a few) who stepped forward to bandage my broken heart when an acquaintance recently made a thoughtless, off-handed comment that reduced me to tears. Because laughter really is the best medicine. And knowing that you have friends who care and love you, and who make you smile when you want to cry... That's even better!

(I'm adding one more thing to my Yes-I'm-Crazy-But-I-Have-to-Do-it-All schedule for this month. Brenda Drake is hosting a Thanksgiving Blog Hop, which perfectly coincides with the purpose of this blog: to remind myself to be thankful for the trials I face daily. So you can expect little "here's what I'm thankful for today" posts to pop up from time to time throughout the rest of this month.)

* This blog post is brought to you as a part of the Thanksgiving Blog Hop

04 November 2012

1st Annual Love Your Enemies Day - Spread the Word!!

On Tuesday, November 6th, we have the incredible privilege to make our voices heard and to choose the men and women who will represent us in our city, county, state, and national governments. (I know, many of you have already voted via absentee ballot. So have I... but Tuesday is the official election day, so bear with me here.) I urge you all, if you haven't already done so, to take the opportunity to make your voices heard. This is an incredible privilege and shouldn't be taken for granted! It wasn't that long ago, after all, when the right to vote for those who would represent us wasn't an established fact for large groups of people in this great nation of ours. You have the choice. Don't let someone else speak for you!

As you go to the polls to make your voice heard, please take a moment to think about the choices you make. No, I'm not going to hop up on my soapbox and tell you how you should cast your ballot. That's the great thing about the whole system. I can vote for the person I think would best represent my beliefs and my best interests... You can vote for the person who will best represent you... and because it's a secret ballot, no one can bully or shame us into changing our minds. Please take a few moments before you cast your vote to learn about the candidates and vote for the person that YOU feel is right. If you don't vote, or you only vote for someone because your mom, dad, cousin, spouse, neighbor, best friend or political party tells you to, then you're giving your voice to someone else. Don't give up your opportunity to choose!

But when we come out of the voting booth, after casting our ballots according to our own consciences, can we make a pact to put the division and animosity behind us?

Every time a major election rolls around, I'm disheartened at the "us" vs. "them" mentality that pervades. Suddenly, I find myself in the middle of a war zone, with friends and family on both sides of every debate. The "informed debates" quickly disintegrate into name-calling and hatred. Feelings are hurt, friendships ended, family relationships strained....

Remember last week, when I said that writers and agents should be aware of the way they present themselves in public, as well as in private? And that we should show respect for each other and ourselves by keeping the snarky, hateful comments to ourselves? Well, I firmly believe that the same rule applies in every aspect of our lives.

Including politics.

So please vote for the candidates you believe in. And don't let anyone take away your voice. But then remember that the "other side" often includes your close friends, family and neighbors. People you loved and cared for before the election got in the way. Take a moment to mend some fences. Do something nice for someone you've disagreed with. And let's resolve to work together moving forward.

I declare this Wednesday, November 7th, to be "Love Your Enemies Day!" The challenge: choose someone who you have disagreed with, or someone who has hurt your feelings, and do something nice for them!!

Will you join me?